Beyond the Handsomeness: A Biography of Thomas Schippers. Nancy Spada. Universal Publishers, 2023. 166 pages.
BOOK REVIEW — Charismatic was the word often used to describe Thomas Schippers. The young American conductor was known as much for his movie-star looks as he was for his expertise in opera. When Schippers died unexpectedly of lung cancer in 1977 at age 47, barely seven years into his music directorship of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra wrote in a press release, “One of the most eagerly sought-after conductors in the world in both the symphonic and operatic fields, the Michigan-born maestro was widely recognized for his musical brilliance, electric stage presence, handsome looks and glamorous lifestyle.”
His death, it seems, had taken everyone by surprise, especially coming just four years after the unexpected death of his wife, Nonie. Beyond the persona and the prized recordings he left behind, not much is known today about Schippers, the artist and the man. Beyond the Handsomeness: A Biography of Thomas Schippers, by Nancy Spada, is the first extensive effort to be written in English. It aims to lift the veil of mystery surrounding one of America’s most promising conductors who died much too soon.
Spada, who is a musician and writer, is both biographer and devoted enthusiast. A personal friend of Schippers, she often refers to his “brilliant” talent and good looks. After all, according to a Life Magazine profile titled “Matinee Idol Maestro,” he had the “face and body of a Greek god.” In her preface, she describes her first starry-eyed encounter in person with “Tommy,” as his friends called him, when she was tasked with delivering scores of Clementi’s symphonies to him in Italy. (The author’s husband, the late pianist-musicologist Pietro Spada, was the editor of new critical editions of the four Clementi Symphonies, in which Schippers had an interest.)
This new bio is an overdue and informative read. The most illuminating commentary comes from Spada’s interviews with some of the artists who knew and performed with him, several of whom are now deceased. Pianist André Watts called Schippers “a lightning rod for powerful emotions.”
His musicianship is praised by musicians such as pianist Earl Wild and opera singers Roberta Peters, Jane Marsh, and Martina Arroyo, who tells a funny story about Schippers’ obsession with playing bridge. There are reminiscences from his brother Henry, scenic designer Tony Walton, and his personal assistant, Margot Melniker.
Schippers ascended quickly from young prodigy of the piano and organ growing up in Kalamazoo, Mich., to become a conductor of international stature. He won a scholarship to Curtis at age 15, and also attended Juilliard and Yale, the latter to study composition with Hindemith.
Most famously, he became a protégé of Gian Carlo Menotti when he was still a teenager, conducting The Consul in 1950 and the premiere of Amahl and the Night Visitors in the live television broadcast on NBC in 1951. That association was during the time when Schippers helped Menotti – the longtime partner of Samuel Barber – establish the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, and Schippers became its music director.
We don’t learn much about the Menotti-Schippers relationship, other than the fact that there was “a falling out.” The friendship began to erode around the time Schippers married the socialite Elaine Lane “Nonie” Phipps, heiress of the Grace shipping fortune. Spada devotes a chapter to their marriage.
Leonard Bernstein was also in his orbit. Schippers was Bernstein’s assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic and accompanied Bernstein on a 10-week tour that included the Soviet Union. During a Young People’s Concert in 1958, Schippers performed Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 2, conducting from the keyboard. He became a regular conductor of the New York Philharmonic as well as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The biographer refrains from addressing Schippers’ sexuality. Although he married, Schippers reportedly attracted admirers of both sexes and has long been linked romantically to Menotti and Bernstein. The most revealing insights about Schippers’ marriage come from Melissa Phipps Gray, Nonie’s cousin, who writes, “… I’d also like to say that they loved each other despite their complicated marriage. I don’t think Tommy understood how much he loved her until after she died. … Nonie dedicated her life to Tommy and his care. She made beautiful houses, meals, dinner parties for him and made friends with people who could further his career. Because of Nonie, he didn’t have to worry about anything but music. She was selfless while he had an oversized ego. In that way, the marriage worked.”
The book details important highlights of Schippers’ career and offers insights into his development as a conductor. For instance, he conducted Maria Callas in Cherubini’s Medea, her final performance at La Scala. He conducted Die Meistersinger at the Bayreuth Festival for the 150th anniversary of Wagner’s birth. In 1966, Schippers led the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House. Franco Zeffirelli’s world-premiere production of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, starring bass-baritone Justino Díaz and soprano Leontyne Price, is remembered as one of the great fiascos in operatic history. It was only Schippers’ “brilliant directional skills” that held together the performance, Spada opines.
Some revelations may be unknown to readers, such as the fact that Schippers was accomplished at making new performing editions. Included is Schippers’ own description of how he reconstructed Rossini’s The Siege of Corinth for La Scala in 1969, and then conducted the same edition at the Met in 1975.
Nowhere was the sting of his early death felt so strongly as in Cincinnati, where he is still remembered as one of the most thrilling conductors in the orchestra’s history. He and Nonie bought a home in Cincinnati and were revered members of the community. Under his baton, subscriptions were at an all-time high. Steven Monder, who was president and CEO during that time, wrote the foreword, providing remarks about Schippers’ conducting style and anecdotes with the musicians. He adds that, in an unexpected and touching gesture, Schippers made the orchestra the residual beneficiary of his estate.
Schippers arrived in Cincinnati in 1970, never having conducted that orchestra. He had been rumored to win the job with the New York Philharmonic, which instead chose Pierre Boulez. He opened his Cincinnati music directorship with Verdi’s Requiem, conducting from memory. He conducted the U.S. premiere of Clementi’s Fourth Symphony to open the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s 80th anniversary season in 1975.
His first recording with the orchestra was Rossini’s Stabat Mater, still a highly regarded interpretation. Observations from the former associate concertmaster Andy Zaplatynsky reveal a bit about Schippers’ “intuitive” approach to conducting. He did not socialize with the musicians, the violinist noted.
Schippers championed American composers Ned Rorem, Samuel Barber, and Aaron Copland. He inaugurated a new organ in Cincinnati by conducting the Poulenc Organ Concerto from the keyboard, telling interviewer Mary Hoffman that Poulenc was a friend of his, and he didn’t know if Poulenc intended it that way, but “the work almost cries for one performer.” Schippers also gave master classes at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and confided to Dayton music critic Betty Dietz Krebs in an interview that he never had the opportunity to take conducting lessons and was self-taught.
Conductor Peter Stafford Wilson, who studied with Schippers, provides the ambitious repertoire list that students were required to memorize for master classes. Carmon DeLeone, who was Schippers’ assistant conductor in Cincinnati, scribbled brief but telling notes about Schippers’ views on the art of conducting, among them this Schippers quote: “I don’t know what I’m doing (physically) when conducting. That’s just how the music inside me is coming out.” DeLeone would later step in to finish the season when Schippers became ill. The book is enhanced by some wonderful performance photos as well as family photos. A select discography is an invaluable addition for collectors.
It’s too bad that there is some unevenness in the book’s editing. One of the misspellings is Arthur Rubinstein. Artist quotations sometimes meander. Spada gives a history of each of Schippers’ music-director predecessors in Cincinnati, omitting the only other American, Thor Johnson. Curiously, there are no articles or reviews referenced from Cincinnati newspapers.
The biography falls short of delivering a complete picture of the man on the podium, partly because even to those who knew him, he is often described as aloof, shy, and “a private man.” Perhaps it will spur another author or musicologist to dig deeper to help preserve the legacy of this truly gifted American musician.
Available from Universal Publishers, Amazon, and bookstores for $34.95; $29 eBook.